Sometimes the second drink hits a bit earlier and harder than you expected, and things go hazy for a time. You're there, you're around, but for a little while you aren't the liveliest company. When you feel it coming you can relax into it, like you might pull a blanket all the way over your head, or you can find something tangible and compelling to focus on.
So, I pushed the offending whiskey a few inches further away and concentrated on Elizabeth's dexterous, left-handed knife-work. She was slicing limes into wedges behind the bar, working on one while eight others waited nearby, witnesses to the grim display. She made smooth, decisive cuts while I worried about her fingers. When the first two were all wedged up she pulled a plastic container out from under the bar and scraped the slices into it. The plastic felt out of place. The rest of the bar was all recessed lighting and angular metal furniture. If they were really on the ball they'd have given her a cut-glass lime wedge decanter instead.
This particular bar wasn't really my milieu, truth be told. It was harder to say if it was hers or not. Behind the bar she could pass I guess. She had a uniform to hide behind, a white apron and a black shirt that looked a little baggy on her skinny frame. She also had the camouflage of her big brown-eyed smile, peeping out from behind her dyed-black bangs, so maybe she did fit if you didn't look at her eyes too carefully. If you did you might wonder why she was always trying to see around corners.
The bar stools were awkward. The seats were made of metal and not deep enough. You weren't quite sitting in them, and you weren't quite resting against them. I was wedged into the corner to the far left of the bar. To my right, Elizabeth was in conversation with a guy who looked like he was a few years younger than me, so in his late 20s. He was dressed to sit in an office and look at documents someone else had spent a lot of time formatting. He was wearing a light blue dress shirt made of some kind of thin fabric and well cut, so that it seemed to hover deferentially over his shoulders rather than rest on them. He didn't seem like a guy who’d given the milieu question much thought.
She'd called him Alex earlier, not with any notable fondness. I realized I'd heard her talk about him a few days before. He was a fairly newly-hatched lawyer at a firm named after four dead guys. I knew it by reputation as one of the midtown anthills where the partners all think they're what Jesus would have been if he'd had his head in the game a little bit more. Sure they can walk on water and all that, but in the real world that loaves and fishes business creates a culture of dependency. The associates spend half their time thinking the partners have Jesus figured out, and half the time wondering why the associates are always the ones getting crucified.
In that context ‘crucified’ means that people say unpleasant and occasionally sarcastic things to you, and you work a lot of overtime for your two hundred grand a year.
Judging from the emphatic thunk her knife made when she set it down on the counter to glare at him, Elizabeth might have been willing to hand up a nail or two if anyone had wanted try their hand at a more traditional interpretation.
Alex was heedless. “You owe me this, Elizabeth,” he said. “And anyway it's a fair offer. I bet it's half again as much as you make per hour behind that bar. I doubt you need your orangutan, but if you do I'll pay him ten bucks an hour more than he makes to sit on that stool and watch you pour drinks.”
I was the orangutan, I realized on reflection. I’m a bit shaggy I guess. It means “man of the forest” in Malay. Alex might have known that and he might not have. You never know how asymmetrically those guys have been educated.
I doubted he was going to top my drink-watching rate though. The bar has a lot of scotches I can’t afford to drink without regretting it, and Elizabeth is good at slipping freebies to the customers she likes. It seemed impolitic to mention my suspicions. I let Elizabeth handle the rest of it.
Elizabeth looked at him with something like pity. “Alex, I make a bit more than twenty bucks an hour. Not everyone tips like you do.”
“Cute,” he said. “Look, this could be a big chance for you guys. I have a lot of friends at work who have some spare cash and some weird thing or another they'd like to know more about. If you can find Katrina for me, I'll put in a good word for you.”
Elizabeth looked at him. “Really, Alex?”
He looked down at the bar for a second, not meeting her eye. “I know some guys,” he said finally. “Quit being like that. You owe me. And if you won't do it maybe the licensing board would want to know you've been working as private investigators without a license. And I know the manager here too. Maybe she'd like to know about your side business.”
I don't know what he was expecting. Maybe an apology, maybe acquiescence. Whatever it was he expected to get it. Elizabeth kept looking at him. He looked away, and passed a hand through his thick black hair. He let his hand hang in the air a bit, maybe to indicate the grandeur of the place, the creeping Trumpism of its burnished metal tables and the green glass bar.
“Threats already,” said Elizabeth at last. “Andrew has a license. I'm his assistant. We've got paperwork and everything. Report like the wind. And how and what do I owe you, exactly?”
He didn't respond immediately, just gave her what I guess was supposed to be a meaningful stare. When that didn’t move her, he found words. “Just, you don’t say that kind of thing to a guy on a date.”
“Seriously?” Elizabeth said. “If Katrina left you without saying goodbye, it wasn't cause I said something pointed about your manners. And if she didn't leave you, if something happened, how can it have anything to do with what I said?”
“You don't get it,” he told her. “You just don't get it.”
“Get what?” said Elizabeth. “Look, I don't know how much you know about business, Alex, but my dad had a little store for a while. The way it worked, he decided how much something cost. If the customers thought it was too much, they didn’t buy it. It's kind of a time-honored way of handling this kind of arrangement, and Andrew and I are traditionalists at heart.”
Alex was evidently not a traditionalist, even though he carried a hard-sided leather briefcase with a dial lock and drank a lot of gimlets. “You owe me,” he said. “Now what's it going to be?”
The way I saw it, knuckling under to this twerp was out. Maybe he did have some juice with one of the managers, maybe enough to cause her some problems, or at least to derail my scotch gravy train, but let him do his worst.
On the other hand, some extra cash would be nice, and Alex drank like his pockets were too tight to hold all his money. Besides, it would be interesting to find out why his girlfriend had vanished. “Because even a local bus gets where it's going eventually,” was my current guess, but “Because he chopped her up in the bathtub and put her in a dumpster in five industrial-strength garbage bags” couldn't be ruled out before we'd poked around a bit.
I pulled the whiskey back towards me while I thought about it.
Elizabeth had evidently decided on a direct approach. “Alex,” she said. “I think we got sidetracked a bit. How about we imagine that we'd just had a different conversation, and then see if something suggests itself?”
“What conversation?” asked Alex, a little warily.
“Oh, I know!” said Elizabeth. “I can even do the voices!”
She raised her left hand up by her face, with the palm up and the fingers folded to the edge of the palm. Then she flapped her fingers, imitating lips moving, while she spoke in a high, syrupy voice:
“Hi Alex! Gosh it's such a super nice day today, isn't it? So nice to see you again! How come Katrina's not with you?”
Then she raised her right hand in a similar fashion.
“Gosh Elizabeth,” she said, in a gloomy Eeyore voice that was deeper than I would have suspected could come out of her reedy little frame. “I'm super sad today! Really down in the dumps. What happened, Katrina is missing! She just disappeared right when we were going to go on a trip. I've looked everywhere, and I don't know where to find her!”
“Oh golly!” she said, miming speech with her left hand, and using the syrupy voice again. “That is super sad! No wonder you're so gloomy. Gee whiz, maybe Andrew and I could find her for you! You know we do that kind of thing sometimes. Remember how we found Mike's daughter when no one else could?”
Mike was one of her regulars. He does something in banking. If you squinted you could see why his daughter hadn’t wanted to be found, but most people would have handled it differently.
Then the Eeyore voice again. “Oh gosh, Elizabeth... I couldn't ask you to do that! It's my problem, not yours.”
Then the other voice, the one that sounded like an earnest eight-year-old telling her favorite teacher how she won a trip to Disneyland for her whole family by having the cutest pigtails in the county. “That's okay, Alex. We like doing it, and you could pay us what we usually make for that kind of work!”
Then Eeyore again, “That sounds fair, Elizabeth. I make tons of money. Why would I haggle over a few dollars an hour for something this important? Usually I just spend all my money to eat ducks at nice restaurants with the guys I work with anyways!”
She dropped her hands and resumed her usual thin, slightly high tone. “Doesn't that sound better, Alex?”
He looked at her for a few moments. His lips started moving a couple of times and then stopped abruptly. Finally, he took a deep breath and spoke.
“Okay, Elizabeth. Okay. So here's how you'll start...”
She cut him off. “Sorry, I have to work around here from time to time. My manager, you know... So why don't you let Andrew ask you some questions for a while.”
He didn't like that any better than I did, but he went along with it. We took a little round table in one of the darker parts of the bar, where the light came from one of the electric sconces or bonzes or whatever set high on the wall. More than anything else, the bar was like an outpost of the fancier side of Atlantic City tucked into midtown Manhattan, a weed that should be pulled up by its roots before it could scatter its seeds, but which almost certainly wouldn't be. It did have Elizabeth and free scotch, which made up for some of it.
“I'm sorry about that orangutan crack,” Alex began. “Just, she always gets me all tangled up.”
I let his words hang for a bit. If I’d had to peg him, I would have said he was an only child, and his father was probably a paragon of bloodless suburban masculinity, the one you wanted on your side if there was meat to cook on a grill or a minivan to haggle over. Elizabeth had described Alex as wanting to be a lawyer in the style of Tom Cruise from Cocktail. It probably wasn’t obligatory to make allowances, but he was paying.
“She has that effect on people,” I conceded. He seemed to think that made us brothers, or at least cousins who’d spent a lot of time at each other’s houses growing up.
In the semi-companionable silence that followed I pulled out my notebook and looked for an empty page. Most of it was full of scribblings from my day job as an investigator for the public defender's office. It was a grim collection of half-assed alibis, mitigating circumstances and alternate suspects. Some of the information in there was true, some was relevant, and some very small portion might matter. But for the most part, anyone whose name went into my notebook was screwed.
I found a blank page and turned back to Alex. The process had taken a while, and Alex was looking back at me with an expression I had to interpret. Sardonic wariness was about the closest I could come to a description, not having encountered the combination before.
I ignored it as best I could. “So,” I said by way of opening. “Katrina, right? What happened?”
“That's your question?” he asked. “'What happened?' Oh, this is definitely money well spent...”
The bonhomie had disappeared pretty quickly. Maybe I needed a new notebook.
“So let’s try a different one,” I said. “How long has she been gone?”
“Three days,” he said, still belligerently. “I told Elizabeth all this already.”
“So now you're telling me,” I said. “Come on, we're on the same side and everything. Look, three days isn't that long. What makes you so sure she isn't just taking a little break?”
He thought about getting up. He even started to. I don't know what he had in mind, maybe to storm off, maybe to take a swing at me, maybe to go report me to Elizabeth. He took a deep breath instead. I like to think he was telling himself not to get worked up over a little churlishness from the help. I also like to think he addressed himself as “champ” during that little internal monologue.
“It's not like that,” he said at length. I waited, but nothing else was coming.
“Now we're getting somewhere,” I said. “So what is it like?”
He ran his hand through his hair again while he thought about it. He'd made the gesture before, and it reminded me of guys I've seen in the subway who give their hip pocket a little tap if they think someone might have nabbed their wallet. I didn't know who Alex thought was going to steal his hair, but it was awfully thick and lustrous. You couldn’t have blamed Prince William for sending an agent after it.
Eventually he had his valuables secured and his story straight. “We were going away,” he said, in a voice that I had to lean forward to hear. “We were going to BVI for a week away together. We're supposed to be there now.” He looked around, taking in the bar, the other patrons, me... He didn't seem to feel like he'd gotten the better of the exchange.
“Whose idea was it to go away?” I asked. “Yours or hers?”
He hesitated before answering. I thought for sure he was going to check his hair again, but maybe he'd decided to trust the neighborhood. “Ours,” he said at last. “It was both of ours.”
I let it pass. “And when did you plan the trip?”
“I don't know, a few weeks ago I guess. What difference does it make?” he said.
“Maybe none,” I said. “Okay, and who paid for the plane tickets? You I'm guessing?”
“And who picked the place? Had either of you been there before?”
“I'd been there before with a couple buddies from law school, and I told her about it,” he said. “She liked the sound of it, so we decided to go.”
“What about it appealed to her most would you say?” I asked.
It did get him talking at last, but it was still the wrong question to ask. He had the idea he would give me the whole brochure, starting with the infinity pool with ocean views and a swim-up bar that served specialty cocktails. From there he moved on to the catamarans and bonfires on the beach and turquoise waters and snorkeling with sting rays and all that. I wasn't sure if the rays came into the pool with you, maybe through some system of tunnels and dumbwaiters, or if you went in the ocean with them, but I wasn't curious enough to ask. Eventually I got a word in.
“Okay, I get the idea,” I said.
He stopped the sales pitch and looked at me. “Have you spent much time in the Caribbean?” he asked.
“I've been to Galveston,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “It's a little different.” There was a graceful little note of sympathy in his answer.
“So I understand,” I said.
“So you can see how she would have been excited. Just think about it from her perspective, man,” he said. He was educating. “She's a girl from a small town in the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic! I think it's even land-locked. And all of a sudden she's going off to spend a week at a $500 a night resort...”
I nodded, noncommittally I thought, but he seemed to think I was committed.
“So you can see that something must have happened, right?” he said, eagerly. Apparently we were friends again.
“So what did happen, Alex?” I asked.
He shrugged. “That's what I'm paying you guys to find out, isn't it?”
I nodded, being patient. I was rewarded by Elizabeth showing up with more drinks for us, a gimlet for Alex and another Balvenie for me. “How's it going, boys?” she asked. “You solve the case yet?”
“Nah,” I said. “I haven’t even measured the pipe ash yet.” She left before Alex could give his opinion.
I turned back to him. “So you guys were going away together…” I decided to throw him a bone. “To this fancy place you knew about. The infinity bar and all that. And then she told you no dice?”
“No,” he said, stony-faced again. “Nothing like that.”
I decided to wait him out. It took a while.
“What happened,” he said at last, in a whisper-quiet voice, “what happened… she just never showed up at the airport.”
“Jesus,” I said it before I could stop myself.
“Now you get it,” he said. “You get it at least. It’s pretty obvious something happened, right?”
Something had happened, sure. What was a bit unclear. My guess was yet another instance of people treating other people even worse than I thought they might. His seemed to be “something that will feature prominently on the front pages of all the tabloids.” But he was eager enough to have me believe his version to make me think he was worried about mine.
“I need to know a bit more about it,” I said. “When was the last time you saw her? Had you guys been fighting about anything?”
He shook his head impatiently. “Get that out of your head. There was nothing wrong, no fights, no nothing like that. Besides, even if there had been, Katrina wouldn’t have just stood me up like that. She was too kind…”
“Is,” I said, mostly to see what would happen.
“Is,” he said. “Yes.” It didn’t seem like his heart was in it.
“So tell me more,” I said. “Were you planning to go to the airport together?”
“No,” he said. “We were going to meet there. I’d sent a car for her.” These guys all think subways are where you go to get magic weight-loss sandwiches.
“Okay,” I said. “So you were at the airport waiting for her. No word at all?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“When did you first start to worry?” I asked.
“We’d agreed to meet three hours before the flight,” he said. “She hadn’t flown that much, just the one time over here from Czech, so I thought maybe she’d be nervous. Plus we had lounge access. I figured that’s something she wouldn’t have seen before, so might as well enjoy it for a while.”
“So three hours to go, and no sign of her. What were you doing?”
He gave me a long look. “Waiting for her to show up,” he said at last.
I left him some silence to fill.
“I… I called her about 15 minutes after that. No answer. I kept calling, kept texting, kept emailing. I never heard anything. Not a word.” He looked like he’d held his hand too close to a candle.
“So how long did you keep that up?” I asked.
“I tried having her paged,” he said. “I was running around JFK like an idiot. No sign. Finally they closed the plane doors. That’s when I gave up. Not until then. You never know…”
“Okay, so they close the boarding gate and she's not there... What did you think had happened to her?” I asked him.
“That she'd had an accident,” he lied, his brown eyes staring straight at me in sudden, earnest falsehood.
When someone lies to me badly, I like to get them to embellish it until it's such a monument to abject untruth that they're embarrassed to be its creator. Then I can do them the favor of believing it. And I know what they sound like when they lie.
“What kind of accident?” I asked.
“Just, you read about it in the papers sometimes. There was that psycho that hit a lady in the head with a brick. Maybe she'd just got in the wrong car and been taken off somewhere. Or sometimes some homeless guy will push a woman in front of a train. That kind of thing, I thought something like that.”
I jotted it all down, slowly and carefully. “How often do you think that kind of thing happens, Alex?” I asked him, casually I thought, more to satisfy my curiosity than in any hope of furthering the investigation.
That got me back on his bad side. “It happens, guy. It happens. Anyway, who knows why I thought that. Do you know always know why you think things?”
I shrugged. “Hardly ever. Okay, so your girlfriend missed the flight, and you figured you would find out why from the Daily News. But you’re a man of action. You didn't go home and wait for the early edition. What did you do?”
He banged both hands on the table. “What's with the third degree? I don't know where she is. Who do you think you're working for?”
You don't get a law degree for turning up to kick-boxing class four times a week for three years, but for some reason all those guys keep forgetting. I figured it was a problem with either the syllabus or the orientation. I held my hands up. “Easy, sport... Look, you're the only one I know that knows anything about Katrina or what might have happened to her. Eventually I want to know what you know, but first I want to know what you thought. Any problems with that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It's a waste of my time. And my money.”
I glanced over at the bar and noticed Elizabeth looking over, looking concerned. I decided to be reasonable. Usually that turns out to be a bad precedent. “Your time I can't do anything about,” I told him. “But I'll stop the clock for 15 minutes if you'll indulge my curiosity.”
He didn't like it, but I looked all orangutany, and he decided he'd go along with it. We were both rewarded for it by Elizabeth, who showed up at the table with refills.
“How's it going over here, boys?” she asked.
Alex looked a bit like he was in a hostage video, but he mumbled something that had the words 'all right' in it. Me, I was fine. She went back behind the bar. I filled the empty pages in my notebook with Alex's grudging assistance for another hour and a half, until she kicked us out to close the bar.